Tooling Up: The Art of Persuasion

How good are you at influencing those around you? Do you think that these skills of persuasion might be valuable in the work world someday? Or, like many technical people, do you feel uncomfortable trying to influence others? In my Tooling Up column this month, I would like to discuss influence and persuasion, and why these skills will be essential no matter which career track you choose to follow.

My motivation for writing a column on this subject came during the four intense days that I recently spent at a big convention when I was constantly bombarded by those who were trying to influence me for one purpose or another. Having just done some reading on the subject of persuasion, I noted with interest the differences in the methodologies applied by these individuals and the success of their efforts. In some cases, their skills worked and my views were changed forever. In other situations, the persuaders failed miserably.

My Visit to the BIO Meeting

If you haven't yet experienced a Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) meeting, you should consider doing so someday to gain a sense of the excitement pervading this industry. Moreover, the event--held this year in Boston--is the world's largest biotechnology venue. You probably saw the news. Not only were there many more delegates than had been expected (almost 10,000 attendees), but 1000 or more protesters turned out as well to make their feelings about "Frankenstein Foods" known to the attendees and the media.

It was a really busy week for me. I had a number of interviews to conduct on behalf of my clients, and a long list of seminar topics that begged for my attention. I felt that I needed to clone myself to stand any chance of getting to the end of my "to do" list for this important event. And it was in this robotic mode that I began zooming around the meeting, completely receptive to a wide variety of persuasion techniques that were being directed my way by others. Here are a few examples:

  • The dynamic young CEO of a San Diego biotech company whose stock had tanked over the past couple of years gave a seminar that reversed my opinion of the firm. The new CEO's presentation was so effective that he almost had me begging to buy shares in the firm by the time I left.

  • In a workshop about European business development opportunities, the vice president of research for a British biotech company totally changed the way I feel about live virus vaccines. Once again, I wanted to buy shares in a company that had earlier been on my list of opportunities to avoid.

  • I held a recruitment interview with a postdoc who was so wrapped up in her science that she said nothing about herself for 30 minutes. Although she left me with a greater understanding of the ins and outs of dendritic cell-T cell interactions, I still know absolutely nothing about why my client should consider her for a job.

  • A bartender, who was quite supportive of the efforts of the protesters, described his feelings about what ag-biotech companies were doing to the world. His efforts to influence me were bolstered by the unavoidable spectacle of the crowd of protesters outside in the street. He told me that there were "more than 70,000 people in the street who feel the same way."

The Secrets and Psychology of Influence

While I was in Boston, I continued the studies on the subject of influence that I began when reading Harry Mills's Artful Persuasion * on the cross-country flight. Mills is a highly regarded writer and speaker on the subject of persuasion, and his book goes into detail about how and why we are influenced daily--from television advertisers to our significant others. Although I drifted (and skimmed) through too many examples, I found that his core ideas taught me a great deal about the elements of persuasion.

Here are some of Mills's major points, as illustrated by my own experience at BIO:

The Law of Candor

One of the most famous rules of advertising is that when you are very candid with your audience, you can literally take a negative and turn it around into a positive. "Every negative statement that you say about yourself is taken as truth," Mills says. And in this way, you build up a credit in your listener's mind that pays off when it comes time to discuss your positives. By the time you get to your "pitch," the listener is totally on your side.

In the seminar conducted by that San Diego biotech firm, the CEO started with a grim discussion of the facts. He acknowledged that the company's stock had gone consistently downhill over a period of more than 2 years. Then he said, "Investors have lost faith, and there has been a string of broken promises. There is no reason that anyone here could expect something different at this time." What a bold opening, I thought, as the Law of Candor brought me almost immediately into this man's camp.

To utilize the Law of Candor, Mills states that your negative must first be widely perceived as a negative, because without triggering instant agreement, the process doesn't work. Second, no apologies should be offered. The purpose is not to clear up past misunderstandings but to move directly into a positive--supported by the credibility you have gained by stating the obvious in a bold fashion. In this case, my mind was wide open to hear of the new developments at this company due to the trust that the CEO had gained by his candor.

The Three Levels of Credibility

This concept was demonstrated by the VP of Research for the British firm developing genetically engineered live virus vaccines. It was clear that to convince the audience that they were on to something special, the young biotech firm was going to have to increase its credibility.

Mills likes to refer to the "Three Levels of Credibility" that must be exercised to persuade listeners. First, there is Personal Credibility. The VP did a fine job of describing his own mastery of the issues, and he spoke with flair and style, which certainly helps. He then moved into the second level of credibility, which involves the actual nature of his ideas.

Controversial ideas require significant effort to gain credibility. In science, they have to be supported by lots of data and by independent research. In this case, the firm's product development focus is based on a 40-year-old live virus vaccine that has been engineered to produce a different kind of immunity. The VP had 40 years of credibility going for his ideas, and he did a grand job of using both old and new data to convince the audience that the technology would work.

The third level of credibility is that of the organization that the speaker represents. Although an audience may be perfectly happy with the presenter's personal stature and the concept itself, it is still possible to fail if they are not convinced of the company's ability to pull it off. In this instance, the VP proved his company's credibility by describing not only their own strengths as a company but also the combined strength of their collaborators and backers.

Sell the Sizzle and Not the Steak

As I sat and listened to the applicant for the research scientist job, I discovered how truly deep into her field of research she really was. We had an interesting chat about some arcane area of immunology, and when she left 30 minutes later, I felt that I understood my assignment a lot better than I had earlier. But did this woman do her job of persuading me that she was a viable candidate for the job? Not at all. That's because she spent 30 minutes selling me on the "steak" while paying no attention to what Mills calls the "sizzle."

"Salespeople have for years understood that they must not describe features of their products without describing the benefits of those features to the user," states Mills. In other words, you can't describe a product without focusing on the advantages that your listener gets by using it. Or in the case of my interviewee, she should have taken the next step and told me how her knowledge might help advance my client's research program. And she should have come into the meeting prepared to talk about the benefits of hiring her and the increase in productivity in this company's immunology program that would inevitably result if they did.

Instead, she came in and illuminated me on the subject matter of her science, without persuading me in any way that she could use any of this to my client's advantage.

These Are Life Skills

The skills of persuasion and influence are not just job-related. We need them in all areas of our life, and they are certainly worth investing in. If you are about to head out into the job market and have yet to brush up on your ability to bring others into your cause, you could be making a big mistake.

One of the best ways to develop your persuasiveness is to rehearse your scientific presentation and your interviewing skills with a partner who will listen and grade you on your ability to sell the "sizzle." Are you presenting the benefits of hiring you? Have you outlined your weaknesses according to the Law of Candor and moved on immediately to your positives?

In closing, I'd like to list three additional pointers from Artful Persuasion:

  • Use stories to illustrate your strengths. Don't simply describe a strength; tell a brief story about how you might use that strength.

  • Structure your argument around one specific theme. For example, focus on the theme of "Why you should hire me" and describe your science from that angle.

  • Never exaggerate. You'll lose all credibility, as my bartender friend did when he overstated the number of Boston protesters by a factor of 50.


Harry Mills, Artful Persuasion (AMACOM, New York, NY, 2000).

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